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The case against hotel loyalty

With the rising popularity of short-term rentals and a host of elite-status-conferring credit cards in the market, hotel loyalty may be a thing of the past


By staying with the same hotel brand whenever possible, you can earn rewards in its loyalty program and reach the highest level of elite status. But loyalty program mergers and the rise of short-term rentals are but a few factors making hotel loyalty seem like a quaint idea.

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Hotel loyalty seems like a good idea in theory, and that’s especially true if you travel frequently for business or pleasure.

By staying with the same hotel brand whenever possible, you can earn rewards in its loyalty program and reach the highest level of elite status and all that comes with it.

With elite status, you’ll often get perks that make travel more comfortable and luxurious, like early check-in, complimentary room upgrades, club lounge access and premium internet access.

Many hotel loyalty programs also let you earn more points on paid stays as you climb the status ladder, which means more free travel, too.

See related: Hotel rewards programs are worth more than just free nights

When loyalty no longer makes sense

Unfortunately, too many people have found out the hard way how pooling status with a single brand can leave you disappointed in the end. This is exactly what happened when Marriott Rewards merged with the Starwood Preferred Guest program in 2018, which ultimately resulted in a new program – Marriott Bonvoy.

Since the merger, premium members of both programs have complained about downgraded benefits, fewer upgrades and not as much recognition of their elite status. And really, far too many people who were loyal before the merger have their own Marriott horror story, a situation that has cutely been referred to as being “Bonvoyed” ever since.

If a program you’re loyal to can merge with another and cut your benefits overnight, there’s not much point in loyalty anymore. After all, your loyalty might occasionally involve staying in more expensive hotels or in a less preferential location in order to stick with a brand. And let’s not forget the thousands of dollars you’re spending, and how you might use that cash for a better deal elsewhere.

And, what if your lifestyle changes? If you devote too much of your time to chasing elite status, but your family grows or you stop traveling for business, it’s possible all your effort might be for naught. And the vast majority of us are traveling a lot less, if at all, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

See related: Can we safely return to sleeping in hotels?

Short-term rentals are changing the hotel loyalty game  

Julie Berninger, a personal finance blogger who writes at Millennial Boss, figured this out the hard way. She once focused all her hotel loyalty within Hilton Honors in order to earn elite status, mostly with the goal of scoring upgraded rooms and amenities.

But now that Berninger has a child and a pet, she finds it’s often uncomfortable to try to cram her family into a hotel room that’s meant for double occupancy. As a result, she gave up on loyalty and now rents Airbnbs.

“With a dog and a baby, it’s often more comfortable and less expensive for my husband and I to stay at a place with all the gear we need and space for baby – that will allow pets – and where we don’t have to worry about disrupting neighbors with either the baby or the dog,” Berninger said. “We can also keep our same routines from home.”

The blogger also noted that the hotel loyalty game is changing because of the popularity of short-term rentals anyway, based on her experience.

It’s crucial to consider how pricey and labor-intensive earning elite status with a hotel brand can be. To achieve top-level Diamond status with the Hilton Honors program through regular spending, for example, you’ll need to pay for 30 stays or 60 nights in a Hilton brand hotel during a year.

If you fork over an average of $250 per night per stay for 60 nights, that means you would have to spend $15,000 in a calendar year to achieve this status the old-fashioned way.

World of Hyatt Globalist Status, which is also the highest regular (non-lifetime) tier of status within this program, also requires the same 60 paid nights or 100,000 base points to achieve.

Since you earn 5 base points per $1 spent as a regular World of Hyatt member, you’d have to spend $20,000 in a year to achieve Globalist status through spending. You could spend less if you already had lower-tier Discoverist or Explorist status thanks to the bonus points you get for being an elite member, but the spending requirement is still high nonetheless.

That’s why many experts, including credit card expert Lee Huffman from Bald Thoughts, say the average consumer who travels a few times per year shouldn’t pursue elite status through spending alone. The key, he says, is figuring out how to get a shortcut to elite status that requires a lot less work.

See related: 5 secrets to get and keep your airline elite status

Pro tip: Earn hotel status with a credit card

According to travel pros, the easiest way to get elite status perks with a hotel program is by signing up for a co-branded hotel credit card.

“Many hotel credit cards offer mid-tier or higher elite status automatically,” says Huffman, adding that some other travel cards also provide automatic elite status or allow you to book rooms that provide benefits similar to elite status.

Huffman likes The Platinum Card® from American Express since it provides automatic Hilton Gold status, earns 5x points on prepaid hotel reservations through American Express Travel and offers Fine Hotels & Resorts benefits. American Express Membership Rewards can also be transferred to Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy and the Choice Hotels program, so you can use this card to rack up points for free stays.

However, there are plenty of cards you can use to achieve elite status with a hotel brand.

Rachel Smith of Michigan says she and her husband love the Hilton Honors brand and use the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card to maintain Hilton Diamond status each year. That’s because this card comes with automatic Hilton Gold status, and it bumps consumers up to Diamond status when they spend $40,000 on their cards within a calendar year.

While the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card comes with a $95 annual fee, Smith says the fact her husband travels for work and earns rewards on business travel helps them justify the expense.

They also earn a ton of rewards with their card, considering it offers 12x points on eligible paid Hilton stays, 6x points on eligible U.S. supermarket, U.S. gas station and U.S. restaurant purchases, and 3x points on all other eligible purchases.

See related: Is it worth it to transfer hotel points to airline miles?

Give up on status and sign up for these cards this instead

Earning elite status with a hotel brand through regular spending will take you forever. Plus, you’ll have to meet the spending or qualifying night requirements year after year in order to maintain the level of status you’ve learned to enjoy.

Your best bet is picking a hotel credit card instead, or perhaps even several different cards that offer elite status as a cardholder perk. With status from several different brands, you would have the luxury of shopping around for the best price and location within several hotel brands, and you wouldn’t feel obligated to stay in an inferior hotel due to loyalty or the fact you need to spend more to reach the next threshold.

Instead of spending $15,000 or more to achieve status with a single brand within a year, you could easily mix things up. For example, you could:

  • Sign up for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card*, which gives you automatic Hilton Diamond status in exchange for a $450 annual fee. You’ll also qualify for a welcome bonus of 150,000 points when you spend $4,000 on your card within three months of account opening. Other major cardholder benefits include a $250 resort credit each year, a free weekend night each year, a $250 airline fee credit and a Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership. And through Dec. 31, any bonus points you earn are considered base points, which help you attain elite tier status and lifetime Diamond status.
  • Also apply for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, which gives you a $300 statement credit for purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program, a Priority Pass Select membership and a credit toward Global Entry or TSA Precheck among other perks in exchange for a $450 annual fee. As an added bonus, you can earn 75,000 points after you use your new card to make $3,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Pick up World of Hyatt Credit Card, which gives you World of Hyatt Discoverist status as long as your account is open. You’ll also receive five qualifying nights toward the next level of status each year and potential to earn two more qualifying nights each time you spend at least $5,000 on your credit card. You’ll also get a free night at a category 1-4 hotel with your card on your cardmember anniversary, and you have the option to earn up to 60,000 bonus points upfront – 30,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, up to 30,000 more Bonus Points with 2 Bonus Points per $1 spent on purchases that earn 1 Bonus Point up to $15,000 in the first 6 months of account opening. A $95 annual fee applies.

With the three cards we’ve highlighted above, you’ll wind up with the following benefits your first year at minimum:

  • Hilton Honors Diamond status and Hyatt Discoverist status
  • A $250 resort credit, a $250 airline fee credit, a free weekend night and a Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership from Hilton
  • A $300 statement credit at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels, another Priority Pass Select membership and up to a $100 credit toward Global Entry or TSA Precheck
  • At least 15 elite qualifying nights toward the next level of status with Marriott Bonvoy and at least five qualifying nights toward the next status with World of Hyatt

And you would get all of this in exchange for $995 in annual fees. When you think of it that way, hotel loyalty looks downright silly.

*Information about the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire card has been collected independently by The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

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